For many of us, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a classic Christmas movie capable of giving us those festive fuzzy feelings. And what makes it so special is arguably Jim Carrey’s standout performance as the grumpy title character. But despite how comfortable the actor looked in the role, he actually required specialist CIA training in order to pull it off.
Many movie fans consider How the Grinch Stole Christmas to be among the greatest Christmas movies of all time. Based on the Dr. Suess book of the same name, it tells the story of the Grinch, who despises all things festive. Unfortunately for him, he lives on the outskirts of Whoville, where festive cheer reigns supreme.
Eventually, the Grinch becomes so annoyed by the locals’ Christmas obsession that he decides to ruin their holiday. In order to do so, he dresses as Santa and proceeds to steal all the town’s food, decorations and gifts under the cover of night. But try as he might, the mean-spirited scoundrel just couldn’t crush the Christmas spirit.
In the absence of all their festive frills, the Whos realize that Christmas isn’t really about material possessions. Instead, the town comes to learn that the holiday is a time for being with loved ones. And with that epiphany, the whole of Whoville erupts into singing – much to the Grinch’s bewilderment.
Though the story doesn’t end there. Because the grumpy Grinch has an epiphany of his own as he tries to work out why his plan to steal Christmas didn’t work. He too realizes that the true essence of the holiday cannot be bought. And in recognition of his festive awakening, the character’s heart grows three sizes bigger.
Spoiler alert: in the heartwarming culmination of the How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the titular character descends from his mountain to return the goods that he’d stolen to the Whos of Whoville. They, in turn, welcome the Grinch into their community for the first time – letting him share in their celebration.
The film’s Christmas message and Carrey’s standout performance in the titular role meant that How the Grinch Stole Christmas quickly became a firm family favorite. Not only that, but the film was also a box office success – grossing a healthy $345 million, according to Screen Rant. But it would seem that the making of the movie was not without its difficulties.
For one, it appears that the success of the movie hinged on Carrey’s involvement. Prior to playing the Grinch, the rubber-faced, Canadian-born actor had made a name for himself in some of the 1990s most-loved comedy films. These included the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber and The Mask.
Though when it came to finding the Grinch, it seems that Carrey was not the studio’s immediate choice. Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the green-colored scrooge. But did you know that Jack Nicholson and Eddie Murphy were the first stars to be considered for the role? It’s not clear how they were eliminated from the casting process, but it could have been a totally different movie if they hadn’t been.
In the end, Carrey’s fate as the Grinch was sealed by Audrey Geisel – the widow of Dr. Suess. Prior to passing away in 1991, the children’s author had resisted offers to sell the movie rights to his books. But following his death, Geisel agreed to several deals – including the live-action retelling of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
The director eventually charged with bringing the Grinch and the rest of Whoville to life was none other than Ron Howard. The actor-turned-film-maker had already gained a reputation for his work off-camera thanks to the success of movies like Grand Theft Auto. Before taking on the Dr. Suess classic, Howard’s last major project had been Apollo 13, which enjoyed enormous commercial and critical success.
In order to win the rights to the Grinch, though, Howard and producer Brian Grazer set out on a bidding war that would ultimately last two years. According to a 2015 piece written by the latter in The Daily Beast, the person they had to impress was Giesel herself. And in a bid to win over Dr. Suess’ widow, they suggested that Carrey could be cast in their adaptation of the Christmas story.
So a meeting between Geisel and Carrey was arranged, Grazer explained. And it went so well, that the former awarded the rights to the first Dr. Suess movie to Howard and Grazer. But there was a catch. They were only permitted to make the film on the condition that Carrey was cast as the Grinch.
Having Carrey onboard as the Grinch was also apparently a plus for Universal Pictures – the production company behind the film. The comedy actor’s involvement in the project gave it more legitimacy, after all. And as a consequence, Universal felt somewhat reassured to invest $120 million towards the cost of the production.
So it would seem fair to say that – in the eyes of Geisel and Universal at least – the success of the Grinch rested firmly on Carrey’s shoulders. And given his reputation for hilariously outlandish performances, he did seem like the perfect person to embody Whoville’s resident scrooge. Besides, looking back, it’s hard to imagine anyone else encapsulating the role in quite the same way.
Carrey also brought his own unique charisma to the final product of the film. Some of the movie’s most memorable moments are a result of the actor’s natural talent for adlibbing. Plus, director Howard was not afraid to let his leading man go off-script on the set – even at his own expense, according to Screen Rant.
For example, one notable moment in the movie sees the Grinch training his dog Max to haul his sleigh in preparation for his Christmas heist. Instructing Max, the Grinch takes on a movie director’s role, which Carrey seems to have based on Howard himself – even donning the filmmaker’s trademark cap. In fact, the teasing scene was totally ad-libbed. But luckily Howard saw the funny side, and so it made the final cut.
Anecdotes like this seem to portray Carrey as being on top form during the making of the Grinch. But in reality, it would seem that the actor was actually dealing with some demons. In the early part of his career, the actor was in the midst of a drug addiction and later admitted his main priority was getting his “next fix.”
Carrey made the confession in a 2014 interview on Britain’s The Graham Norton Show. The actor explained, “I couldn’t really enjoy it because I was stoned. But now I am clear-headed and really enjoying myself – I’m having a good time. Back then all I ever cared about was my next fix.”
Yet there were apparently other issues on set, too. According to makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji – who worked on the Grinch – Carrey was difficult to work with. He claimed that the actor often disappeared from the set and caused delays to the production. In 2018 Tsuji told New York magazine’s Vulture website, “We couldn’t shoot anything.”
But that wasn’t the only problem Carrey posed to production staff. Apparently, the actor wasn’t quite prepared for the realities of embodying the Grinch. The first time he transformed into the character, Screen Rant claims that the process took 8.5 hours. And this left Carrey feeling a little grumpy himself.
As you might imagine, turning Carrey into the Grinch was an undeniably mammoth task. While his costume seemed simple enough – made from spandex and dyed-green yak hair – it was the prosthetics and makeup required for the role that really made the difference. The actor also donned yellow contact lenses to create the character’s distinctive eyes.
Together, the effect was incredible. But for Carrey, becoming the Grinch was a somewhat traumatic experience. The actor revealed his costume woes during his appearance on The Graham Norton Show. He explained, “It was like being buried alive each day. On the first day, I went back to my trailer, put my leg through the wall and told Ron Howard I couldn’t do the movie.”
Given that Carrey was a fundamental part of the film, Howard couldn’t simply let his leading man go. So in a bid to placate the actor, the makeup team was able to modify their process – cutting it down to three hours to put on and just one to remove, according to Screen Rant. But despite the improvement, Carrey still wasn’t convinced.
Carrey’s discomfort in the suit could have spelled the end for the first Dr. Suess movie. The actor was required to wear his Grinch costume for a total of 92 days throughout the year-long shoot, according to Screen Rant. So, the production team resorted to desperate measures to try and make the funnyman more comfortable.
In the end, a CIA specialist was brought in to help, and they taught Carrey a technique used by agents when under duress. He explained on The Graham Norton Show, “A guy [who] trained CIA operatives how to endure torture was brought in. That’s how I got through it.”
Grinch producer Brian Grazer also opened up about Carrey’s experience with the CIA pro in The Daily Beast. He revealed that Carrey had struggled with his costume from day one. And under these circumstances, the film was at real risk of losing its star.
Grazer revealed, “After the first day of shooting, [Carrey] went back to his trailer convinced he couldn’t survive weeks of carrying the Grinch makeup. He went to Ron Howard and said the makeup was like being tortured, that he couldn’t bear it, that he couldn’t do the movie.” Grazer went on, “[Carrey] is game for anything; his misery said a lot about how suffocating the makeup was.”
The problem was that Grazer and Howard had secured the rights to The Grinch on the condition that Carrey took on the role. So they had to convince him to stay, or else the men would risk losing millions of dollars. Changing the makeup, though, was not an option. As Grazer explained, “…It was critical to creating the movie we wanted to make.”
So Grazer and Howard had no choice but to come up with a compromise. The producer revealed, “We had to keep the makeup, and we had to keep [Carrey] – but we had to find a way to make it possible for him to endure something that felt like being tortured.” And it was then that Grazer came up with an ingenious idea.
As fate would have it, Grazer recalled a conversation he’d had with a CIA expert who taught spies how to survive torture. The producer concluded, “We had an actor being held prisoner by his costume – he was being tortured by his makeup. Maybe the CIA specialist could teach Jim Carrey to survive the green Grinch makeup the way he’d taught spies to survive hostile interrogation?”
Revealing what went down, Grazer continued, “We flew the CIA specialist in on a Friday, and he spent the whole weekend closeted with [Carrey]. He taught [him] all kinds of techniques for distracting himself, for creating mindsets that allowed him to ignore and work through the discomfort.”
Grazer didn’t elaborate on what “techniques” the CIA specialist taught Carrey on the set of The Grinch. But luckily for us, Carrey did reveal some of the methods he learned to endure torture during his appearance on The Graham Norton Show. And it seemed he looked back on his time with the expert fondly – calling it “quite hilarious.”
So what were some of the CIA tips that Carrey picked up? Well, he revealed, “[The expert] said, ‘Eat everything you see and if you’re freaking out and you start to spiral downward turn the television on. Change your pattern. Have someone you know come and smack you in the head. You know, punch yourself in the leg – or smoke.’”
Giving one of his signature wacky performances, Carrey went on to explain how he must have looked pretty strange on the set of the movie. He revealed how he would sit on set, smacking his own leg and smoking endless cigarettes with a giant holder “so the yak hair wouldn’t go on fire.”
Even with his CIA training though, Carrey described the experience of making The Grinch as “horrifying.” He recalled how he just kept telling himself, “It’s for the kids. It’s for the kids. It’s for the kids. It’s for the kids…” But armed with his torture-survival techniques, he was able to endure the makeup a total of 100 times.
Carrey added that there was another – perhaps unexpected influence – that got him through the experience. Revealing his alternative coping technique, Carrey told host Norton, “You know what got me through it? The Bee Gees.” He added, “I’ve no idea why, but they just made me happy. There’d be no Grinch without them.”
Though Carrey was allegedly still tough to work with on set. In his interview with Vulture, makeup artist Tsuji claimed that the actor had lashed out at him. What’s more, he said that his experience working on the Grinch left him seeking therapy.
Speaking of Carrey’s apparent antics, Tsuji alleged, “In the make-up trailer he just suddenly stands up and looks in the mirror, and pointing on his chin, he goes, ‘This color is different from what you did yesterday.’ I was using the same color I used yesterday. He says, ‘Fix it.’ And okay, you know, I ‘fixed’ it. Every day was like that.”
In the end, there was at least some recognition for the difficulties that cast and crew dealt with on set. As Grazer wrote for The Daily Beast, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas became a huge hit – four weeks as number one at the box office in Christmas 2000. And it won an Academy Award. For Best Makeup.”